Former U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds air demonstration squadron pilot Col. Chris Stricklin, who narrowly survived an incident during an air show in 2003 in which he ejected from his F-16 just before crashing, will be speaking and signing copies of his new book Survivor’s Obligation: Navigating an Intentional Life on Friday, September 20, at 7 p.m. at the EAA Aviation Museum.
Chris, EAA Lifetime 1309632, who was a decorated F-15 pilot
prior to joining the Thunderbirds, saw his life instantly change forever in a
matter of seconds during an air show at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho
in 2003. As Chris explains it, things just seemed to be off on the day of his
“It was as a day like every other,” Chris said. “We were
on the road a lot. It was an anniversary year. We had flown a lot of shows, and
we had this one show we went into and it was one of those where everything was
going wrong. Our satellite imagery was wrong. We moved the show points, we
moved to show center. It was a day where everything started lining up and
everything goes wrong, and I got up that morning and I felt like something was
wrong. I went in and said, ‘Hey, I don’t want to fly my opening maneuver. I don’t
know why. I just don’t want to fly it.’ They said, ‘Yeah, go ahead and go fly
it.’ My entire flight was 25.25 seconds long from takeoff to explosion. My
opening maneuver was a max climb split-S. I took off, went straight up, flipped
over on my back, and brought it back around the other side to exit out the opposite
direction. And 25 seconds after takeoff is when the aircraft hit the ground and
I ejected. I had commanded ejection at 140 feet. I left the aircraft at 40
feet, one half-second before impact, and then landed in the fireball.”
After the crash, Chris was reassigned to an F-15 in Japan
before getting an assignment in the Pentagon, which allowed him to recharge and
regroup away from aircraft. Chris would have a variety of other assignments in
the Air Force before retiring and moving back to his home state of Alabama.
Currently Chris works for a construction business, while consulting and writing
on the side.
For many years, Chris refused to talk about his crash, even
with his wife. Finally, years after his incident, Chris teamed up with fellow former
fighter pilot Joel Neeb, who was diagnosed with cancer while in the prime of
his career, to write a book about their respective traumatic experiences and
how they and their families have dealt with them.
“The reason I wrote the book is because for 13 years, my
wife and I didn’t acknowledge it happened,” he said. “We didn’t talk about it,
we didn’t discuss it. We just went on. Life as normal. There are stories in the
book of how I come to realize you have to deal with trauma, and just not
talking about it is not okay. And so, I had a really hard time whenever I
started talking about it as I was nearing retirement, and that is what the book
is about. The book is not about why I crashed because everybody wants to know, ‘Why
did you crash? What happened?’ The book is not about why I crashed. The book is
about the trauma, my family experience, and how we dealt with. I’m excited
about the book coming out, but I’m also very nervous because it’s a ticket into
my family and how we dealt with that.
“My co-author, Joel Neeb, was also a fighter pilot, on top
of his game, flying at the top of the world, loving what he was doing, and he
was diagnosed with cancer,” Chris said. “And they gave him a 15 percent chance
of surviving five years, and that was eight years ago. And so, the two of us
were consultants together with that shared background, and we were talking
about it. A lot of military people experience survivor’s remorse. When you go
to combat and not everybody comes back that you went with, you have a remorse
of, ‘Why did I make it back and everybody else didn’t?’ It’s very well known,
it’s very well talked about, and both of us looked at our near-death
experiences, and we felt like that we had gifted tomorrows that everybody says
we shouldn’t get.
“Not that we didn’t deserve it, but that so many other people hadn’t, and we weren’t remorseful,” he said. “We felt an obligation to live life to its fullest, to make the most of every single day, and that’s where we came up with Survivor’s Obligation and said, ‘Our purpose in life is to share our stories.’”
Despite the initial difficulty he had opening up, the process
of writing Survivor’s Obligation has
been a rewarding one for Chris.
“The most rewarding thing for me, first of all, is being
forced to tell my story because I don’t like telling my story. I don’t like
standing up in public, and I will give you the professional side of me, but I
don’t like the personal side and the vulnerability. I just presented a keynote
to a team with my story, and it was over a hundred people from the construction
industry, which tends to be pretty hardcore people. And as I was driving off,
ready to go home to Alabama, one of the guys stopped me in the parking lot and
said, ‘It’s been a long time since anybody put tears in my eyes.’ It’s the
impact on other people. … This book was written for the survivor in all of us.
So, that’s one of those things that Joel and I like to say, it’s not about my
story and his story, we’re just willing to put our stories out there to start
the conversation. Our desire is for other people to apply this to their lives
because it’s written for the survivor in all of us.”
Copies of Survivor’s Obligation will be available for purchase at Friday’s event.